Monday, 6 February 2017
How It Is by Samuel Beckett
The best antidote for this I know is to talk to my husband, who has a Master's in English Literature and Creative Writing, and has absolutely no patience for books that think you need to have those degrees in order to really get them. To him, opaqueness is not a virtue or a marker of quality.
I always feel much better about it after talking to him.
In many ways, this discussion always reminds me of a section of Ken Burn's Jazz, where someone is talking about Ornette Coleman, and how you have to study to get what Coleman's doing, that it's not supposed to be something someone could just listen to and get. And then there's the moment where Branford Marsalis calls that a load of crap.
Which isn't to say that I want books to be perfectly easy, either. I like twistiness, I like having to work a bit, and I thoroughly enjoy when I get things on another level because I'm lucky enough and have taken the time to ground myself in either the wider world of classic literature, or the specific work of an author. It's a lovely icing on the cake, to feel like I'm in the know.
But it can't be the cake. I mean, really. If your work can't be read and appreciated by people unless they're one of the few to do a doctorate in your specific work, have you succeeded?
As you may have guessed, I found How It Is rather opaque. Because it's Samuel Beckett, I'm inclined to duck my head and say that it's me, and maybe it is me, but it is dense and difficult, eschewing punctuation and easy meanings.
(Also, what the hell is it with authors getting rid of punctuation? Do they think it makes things sound more natural, like punctuation is a fetter put upon us by the Man? Do they not realize that the goddamn point of punctuation is to mimic the patterns of human speech in ways that make sentences more readable? We punctuate as we talk ALL THE FUCKING TIME. A comma is a way to capture a certain way of pausing, a period a full glottal stop. They come from speech, they are not arbitrarily imposed upon it.)
I read this book at what felt like a gallop, not knowing where to pause or stop or anything, and that frequently meant I had no idea what I'd just read, and only some of the time did I have the willpower to go back and figure out what was just said. I can do that on occasion, but not for every paragraph on every page. It may be a slim book, but I'm not putting that much work into it.
It's not that there's nothing here, but there is no real plot, no real characters, and the prose is so dense as to be almost unreadable. It feels like a work that is written to be inaccessible, without appealing to any of the reasons you might choose to read a book.
As a work on human alienation and cruelty to each other, well, it's kind of arbitrary. The narrator rolls around in the mud, sometimes encountering other humans. Sometimes he's the victim, and cruelly treated by the man who spoons him (and stabs him in the butt with a corkscrew, or maybe that's something he does to others, but I think it's both.) Sometimes he's the tormentor and for some reason can't speak, so must resort to cruelty to tell the person he's spooning what to do. Everyone appears to be male, although the word cunt is used really quite a lot.
For a while, I thought this might be about God's relationship to humans, without being able to tell them what to do, having to resort to cruel goads. But then I wasn't so sure. It's just a weird set-up, and I don't understand why the tormentors can't talk, and the idea of the world as a mud pit we all roll around in and are cruel to and abused by others I get, but...is there more?